Review of “Independent People” by Halldór Laxness.

Based on a recent article in New York Review of Books, I read the novel “Independent People” by the Icelandic writer Halldór Laxness. The book was originally published in two volumes in 1934 and 1935. Laxness won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1955, in part on the strength of this book. Like Moby-Dick, I approached this novel as an obligation. I put it down once, after a few pages, in exasperation with its rambling faux-Norse folklore beginnings, but took it up again when it was the only reading on hand while I spent five hours in the local hospital emergency department.

The story is set in late 19th-early 20th century Iceland, which was at the time a province of Denmark. The novel’s protagonist is Guðbjartur Jónsson, who has rechristened himself “Bjartur of Summerhouses.” After 18 years in the service of the town Bailiff, he is now a tenant crofter on rugged pastureland where he raises sheep and, eventually, a family. Bjartur is a hardy, opinionated, belligerent man who is embraces personal hardship and suffering as badges of his aggressive idea of independence. He mocks anything that smacks of generosity by more prosperous people extended to him or his family. He reflexively dismisses anything unfamiliar or that smacks of social order, including religion.

Bjartur endures the loss of his first wife, who bleeds to death after giving birth to his first child while he is away from home. He remarries and raises three additional children, who embrace the arrival of a cow donated by the Bailiff. Bjartur resents the cow, both as a symbol of charity and as pasture competition for the sheep he prizes. When a calf is born, to the delight of his wife and children, he promptly butchers it and sells the veal.

Then things take a decidedly tragic turn. His second wife dies. His oldest son runs away in the winter and his corpse is found in a stream a few months later. His youngest son leaves for America. He drives his daughter out of the house. His sheep are decimated by mysterious deaths. Finally, Bjartur’s middle son, the last of his children remaining at Summerhouses, announces he’s leaving for America. While he was the best-adapted of his siblings to the croftman’s life, he came to see it, and his “independent” father, for what they were. As he bids farewell to his older sister:

“He stood deep in thought, eyes fixed on the ground for greater concentration “There’s always someone in the valley there who rules over you and holds you in his hand,” He said at length. “I don’t know who it is. And though Father may be hard, he isn’t free. There’s someone even harder than he, someone who stands over him and holds him in his power.””

In the event, he misses his ship and stays in Iceland. Meanwhile, Bjartur is forced to work in town to earn money to rebuild his flock.

Things improve for Iceland with the onset of World War I, as their agricultural production is much in demand and prices rise. Agricultural co-ops are established to maximize profits for the producers, and the Icelandic government invests in roads and bridges to connect rural producers to their markets in the cities. But a year after the war’s end, the price for Icelandic sheep and their wool collapses. Bjartur’s loans are called in, his land and croft are sold in bankruptcy. He leaves his son with strikers who are facing armed police. He finds his daughter in poverty, consumptive, abandoned by her husband with two small children. Bjartur leads them, together with his first wife’s 90 year old mother, a 25 year old horse and a dog, to start over.

I read this novel as an extended parable on the price of independence. I found myself recalling the history of Bolshevism in post-Czarist Russia and of Maoism in China at the end of WWII. In both cases, agrarian societies living in grinding poverty were subjected to brutal transformation to impose dependence on a socialist system. At the time this book was written, little was known of the cruelty of Stalinism, and Mao didn’t even come to power until decades later. But the picture Laxness paints of the noble squalor of peasant life in Iceland can stand in for many contemporary rural agrarian cultures of the time. Contrast Laxness’ protagonists (poor, downtrodden, struggling, coarse, realistic) and the author’s socialism with Ayn Rand’s protagonists (rich, heroic, successful, glamorish, cartoonish) and her libertarianism. Laxness has the far more realistic take on the meaning and cost of independence.

Independent People was written while the Holodomor, the deliberate starvation of nearly 4 million Ukrainians to enforce Stalin’s farm collectivization, took place. Laxness’ own socialist beliefs survived the Stalin show trials and purges of the late 1930s, which he personally witnessed in Russia. His enchantment with Soviet socialism only subsided after the 1956 Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution.

Far from being polemical, Laxness includes comic asides and can have some gentle fun at the expense of his characters. He acknowledges both the beauty and harshness of the rural Icelandic landscape. The sheer scope of imagination and descriptive detail in this novel is itself impressive, and Laxness wrote 19 additional novels and numerous short stories as well.

Thematically, Independent People is an example of social realism, but the prose in this book owes much to the styling of Victorian pastoral novelists like Thomas Hardy. There are lush descriptive digressions and occasional lines of poetry. The pacing is slowed by this attention to detail, as well as the repetitive phrasing. Stylistically, Independent People is more similar to Moby-Dick than to a 21st century novel. Jane Smiley described “Independent People” as “… one of the best books of the twentieth century.” As they say, your mileage may vary. I would certainly say that Laxness has a unique voice and style, in my limited novel-reading experience. I may someday pick up another of his highly acclaimed novels, but for now, my appetite is sated.